Elysium: Why is Max white?

Elysium

*A spoiler-free discussion*

I really enjoyed Elysium. It’s one of the few sff movies I’ve seen recently that is more than just an action movie. Its story about the disparity between the haves and the have-nots – now so distant they’re not even on the same planet – is old, a bit simplistic and rather heavy-handed, but it still makes an impact. Blomkamp’s gritty, violent style of filmmaking really brings home the brutality of the poverty divide, and doesn’t really allow you to entertain the fantasy of living with the privileged 1%. Obviously, everyone would prefer to live on Elysium rather than Earth, but the decadence and selfishness of the habitat is so realistically excessive that the thought of living there actually made me uncomfortable.

The plot is a bit buggy, but I’m willing to forgive that. I like the awkward relationship between humanity and machinery. And yes, Elysium is also a great action movie – I loved the fight scenes and the special effects. But it’s an action movie with substance and that raises it above its peers. The hero isn’t a sexy martial arts expert who delivers stunningly choreagraphed death in a way that makes hardship look cool – he’s an ex-car-thief in an exoskeleton who’s fighting because he’s going to die if he doesn’t, and suffers greatly all the way to Elysium. I think I like this movie more than District 9.

But there is one serious question I have to ask – why is the hero a white guy? Yes, I know Hollywood is biased in favour of the straight white western male, but in this case the bias looks ridiculous, and considering the racial overtones of the movie, it could have been better.

According to the plot, Earth has become a slum thanks to overpopulation, overconsumption, climate change, etc. The world’s wealthiest people have escaped to Elysium – a high-tech habitat in Earth’s orbit. Elysium is a paradise of mansions, pristine blue swimming pools, perfectly manicured lawns, and beautiful overdressed people. They have everything they could want, including healing pods that can cure any disease and fix any injury. Every home has one, and this technology is at the core of the plot and its attack on elitist healthcare policies. The rich can be instantly cured of absolutely anything; the poor will suffer and die because there aren’t any health pods on Earth.

Now, the movie is cast so that almost all the characters on Earth are POCs (people of colour) while everyone on Elysium is white (except for one Indian guy – President Patel. Yeah.) To put it in oversimplified terms, the privileged few are white, the oppressed masses are black.

The major exception is Matt Damon’s character, Max. Max grew up on Earth, a lone white orphan boy in a population that’s primarily Latino and black. He’s a fairly ordinary person, no more skilled than anyone around him. He lives a meagre existence and works in a factory that makes the robots for Earth and Elysium – the same robots that beat him up early in the movie for looking suspicious, and who would shoot him if he set foot on one of Elysium’s perfect lawns. He’s forced to be an agent of his own oppression, just like lots of other people. Max gets a lethal dose of radiation poisoning at work, forcing him to find a means of getting to Elysium where a health pod could cure him – a quest that becomes increasingly revolutionary. Lots of other people are in a similar situation. Lots of other people are criminals, like him, who have the contacts and skills to do what he does.

So why, once again, is it that a white man has to step in and save humanity? Especially when he’s almost the only white guy around? Have we not had enough of this shit? Watching the movie, I was reminded of this article on ‘Why film school teachers screenwriters not to pass the Bechdel test’, and this quote in particular:

I had to understand that the audience only wanted white, straight, male leads. I was assured that as long as I made the white, straight men in my scripts prominent, I could still offer groundbreaking characters of other descriptions (fascinating, significant women, men of color, etc.) – as long as they didn’t distract the audience from the white men they really paid their money to see.

And isn’t that exactly the case in Elysium? Why can’t the hero be black or Latino when the majority of society is? When every other character involved in the rebellion is a POC, why is it still that they can’t get actually achieve anything without Max, the white guy? If the hero was black, would the fight with Elysium look – to some people – less like justice and more like a barbarian invasion?

Just to be clear, I like Matt Damon and I enjoyed his performance. I just think the character should have been cast differently. In itself, there’s nothing wrong with his character being white, but when viewed in the context of an overwhelming bias in favour of white heroes, it’s a problem. Also, I know that it’s not impossible for this character to be white. Obviously there are still lots of white people on Earth – they’re not all rich enough to live on Elysium. The nun who helped raise Max and the factory manager are cases in point. And President Patel surely isn’t the only POC on Elysium. Rather, I’d say that the movie’s casting is a means of reflecting the fact that the wealthiest and most powerful people on Earth are mostly white, and the poorest and most disempowered are mostly non-white. As I mentioned before, the way this is done is simplistic, but not invalid.

The racial issue is emphasised by Sharlto Copley as Kruger, an Elysium special forces agent on Earth, tasked with things like shooting down ships full of people trying to go to Elysium. Based on Copley’s performances in District 9 and The A-Team, it seems he excels at playing crazy characters, and this time he makes a truly terrifying villain as an Afrikaner straight out of Apartheid-era South Africa. His penchant for violence, particularly violence against the oppressed, coupled with his strong Afrikaans accent, misogyny, overbearing demeanour, and use of racist terms like “boytjie” (meaning ‘little boy’ but used to refer to a black adult man) and “blackie”, holds a kind of deep-seated historical terror even for someone like myself, who was born when Apartheid was dying and enjoyed opportunities my parents were denied. Racism is still alive and well in SA, and contemporary versions of Kruger can easily be found in the more remote areas of our country. So on the one hand I grinned almost every time he used words like “kak” (pronounced “cuck”, meaning “shit”) or “lekker” (good, nice, but also a sweet/candy) or said something in a way that sounded particularly South African, because Afrikaans is part of my culture too and seeing South Africanisms in a big budget movie is a rare treat. And on the other hand, Kruger scared the shit out of me in the way that any crazy white supremacist would.

Perhaps Kruger’s significance is something best appreciated by other South Africans, but he really reinforces the underlying issue of a white/non-white power divide, while acting more explicitly as the guard dog of the wealth/class division. The fact that director/writer Neill Blomkamp is going so far as make a statement about racism with his casting choices and characters like Kruger, makes it that much more disappointing that Max’s character is white, whether that was Blomkamp’s decision or the studio’s requirement. A white hero and white villains, controlling the fates of POC victims who only play supporting roles.

Now that I’ve got that critique out of my system, I have to add that, although Elysium is guilty of bowing to Hollywood’s straight white western male bias, it’s a hell of a lot better than its peers that do the same. Because at least the issue is clearly on the table, and it’s giving you something to think about even if it’s making its point with a sledgehammer. Most of the time the bias just slides by as norm or as tradition and it’s easy to forget it’s there. I’m sure conservatives will be in an uproar about this movie because it makes statements about race, wealth and privilege that they would prefer not to hear. The one very positive thing I can say about casting Matt Damon as Max, is that at least no one can seriously argue that the movie is trying to say all white people are evil. Ok, no doubt some people will say that anyway (and even if Max were black that would be missing the point completely), but it helps to forestall that particular bit of close-mindedness with a strong counterargument. If the movie was more sophisticated it wouldn’t need to do that, but for a big-budget action movie it’s more progressive than what we could normally hope for.

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32 thoughts on “Elysium: Why is Max white?

  1. Fantastic review and discussion. I will have to see it myself to see if I feel the same way about the white male lead. It sounds like I would also be terrified of Kruger, and cannot wait to see Sharlto Copley’s betrayal as such a villain. Will go see the movie asap!

    • Thanks Lu 🙂
      Sharlto Copley is sooo good. I mean, I hated Kruger, but that’s because Copley plays him so well. I wonder how non-South African viewers will feel about his character – he’s very Afrikaans, and uses a lot of Afrikaans in the movie.

  2. Really interesting article, thanks. I’m looking forward to seeing the film.
    “…whether that was Blomkamp’s decision or the studio’s requirement”
    It wouldn’t surprise me at all that it was a studio requirement :-/

  3. That is exactly the same what I think when I saw this movie.

    I also think sends the wrong message that if You are white, don’t worry, You have a place granted on utopian Elysium, but if You are latino or black You are screwed up.

    The fact that latinos and blacks need a white guy to do justice for all of us is a vision completely paternalist and racist.

    It sends the message too that no matter how they can keeping minorities apart of Elysium, if its necessary they can use a foreigner terrorist to achieve this goal.

    • Hey Bellvio 🙂

      I wouldn’t go so far as to say the movie implies that all white people would be saved and everyone else is screwed. The primary issue is still class, so it’s the rich people who will be saved. The movie is cast so that almost all Elysium residents are white, but it’s safe to assume that they’re there because of their wealth rather than their race.

      If by “foreigner terrorist” you mean Kruger – I don’ think the idea of a foreigner really applies here, unless you’re referring to the fact that Kruger does not live on Elysium. But yes, I like the irony that Elysium relies on the underprivileged of Earth to maintain itself. Kruger keeps the minorities away, people like Max build the security bots.

      And yeah, definitely, we could all use a break from that white saviour trope.

      • Doesn’t imply white people would be saved but, coincidently, all people remain in earth isn’t white. It’s the same message for me.

        In addition, Max keeps perfect english without accent, even if he lives surrounded by latino people since a kid and doesn´t speaks any spanish. That’s more to support my argument. People who produces the movie , didn’t want to be portrayed the hero in any particular way as a threat to major white audience, showing him in a foreigner look or condition different to a traditional WASP or “gringo” look.

        Best Regards Lauren

        • Totally agree with you about the accent! I only thought about it after I’d written the article. There’s no way he’d have that American accent. He does speak a bit of Spanish, but he only speaks a few brief lines when he should be speaking mostly in Spanish, especially to his latino friends. And you’re right, it makes him more ‘palatable’ to certain audiences.

  4. he wrote the character as white. it was about class. race does play an issue but there is more to everything then race. there are lots of poor white people and that is always overlooked in the favor of the fact that there are many white people who are extremely wealthy. It was written and cast for a white male, not for a white hero but because he was looking for a look. all the cast people and the younger version looked as the writer intended. the question may be more, who inspired max’s character? since they were probably an amalgam of the features presented by who he tried to cast and who was cast. Now the trend is carried in this show with a noticeable race trend in the rich, but it’s not about race. it’s class. why do you think there is war in the middle east, do you think they hate each other that much, or it is caused by poverty. issues need to be tackled for what they are, vicious cycles that separate people, cycles of low income and cost of living exclusion. If you want race to be the focus go to District 9, where race(an illusion in it self) is given actual form in species, something we can’t even comprehend. what humans would do when we have no reason to treat a species equally.(they are by no means us) not a percived difference.(ala the racism, skin colors, religions and nationalities that are looked down on today)

    • Hi Mitch 🙂

      I agree, class is certainly the primary issue here. Elysium’s residents paid for their utopia, they didn’t get a free ticket because of their skin colour. And I don’t think anyone could seriously assume that there are no poor whites, as I mentioned in the article. Nevertheless, the movie is cast in a way that raises the issue of race in relation to class, and that can’t be swept aside. In light of that, I think it was a mistake to make Max white. It would have been better to have a more mixed cast of Earth characters, with a POC hero.

      District 9, as you say, addresses race more directly, but I think Blomkamp made a similar mistake there and undermined his anti-racism theme with the west-African gangsters, who are portrayed as barbarians. The viewer is meant to empathise with the oppressed aliens, so it’s absurd that some of the villains are black people displaying the kind of racial stereotypes the movie is supposedly arguing against.

  5. The only way to end this White Guy main character crap is simple…

    DO NOT BUY A TICKET.

    TELL YOUR FRIENDS NOT TO BUY A TICKET.

    DON’T EVEN REVIEW THE FILM.

    DON’T EVEN MENTION THE FILM.

    Once the studios see that people are not buying tickets to see their White Main Star movie, then they will CHANGE.

    If people buy a ticket and complain or start questioning the White character, the studios don’t care, they already have your money.

    AGAIN, DON’T BUY A TICKET.

    Then everything will change over night. Hit them in the purse where it hurts.

    • While I admire the sentiment, I’d find that really difficult to be honest, except when it comes to the really mainstream, lowest-common-denominator crap. After learning about the Bechdel Test and taking into account issues like those mentioned in the film school article I linked to, I felt pretty shameful about my movie collection – it lacks the diversity I’d like to see in film.

      But I still enjoy watching my DVDs. White protagonists don’t make a movie bad – they’re more like a cliché in a movie that may have many merits. Merits I don’t want to miss out on. What I think would be a better idea would be to seek out, and promote movies and books that have greater protagonist diversity.

  6. Well, Max’s full name is Max De Costa, which implies he’s mixed…although, it would have been nice if Damon had been given black hair to add to the effect. But why did a white guy star, really? Easy. There is no way in hell Hollywood would’ve given Neill Blomkamp the $115,000,000 budget he needed with a Latino signed on as the leading man. It’s bullshit, but that’s Hollywood.

    • Da Costa means from the coast in Portuguese, many people from Portugal and Spain have that name, and since people from Portugal and Spain are native white European people with the same ancestry as french, Irish etc… The name Max Da Costa doesn’t implies the character is mixed.

      • You have to remember the setting of this movie. You seriously believe there are only native white European people with this surname? There are probably more “Da Costa”´s in the Americas than there are people in Portugal.

        • Loads of Da Costas in Latin America. I think that was on purpose to make him “fit in” with everyone else who remained on Earth. I spent most of the film trying to spot the poor white people and saw absolutely none, and if Max’s character was created as “mixed” or “white” becomes irrelevant by the absolute absence of poor white people to me and makes it 100% likely that president Patel had enough money to buy himself a way out. It’s another “liberating white man” movie.

  7. Hispanics are mostly white (i.e. of Spanish descent, mostly). All of those portraied in the movie have their ancestors from Europe. Anyone who fails to realize it is quite delusional…

    • That is correct Da Costa is a popular Portuguese last name. I’m portuguese and proud to look and be white. I’m offended that some people think we are Latinos. It’s ok to be proud to be white

  8. cause if the white guy wasn’t a hero, the movie would be hailed as “dats rayciss” by the black brothers and La Raza. Y’know since the blacks/muzzies needed to be hailed and wants the gibs me dats.

    If i had $1 billion, I would save poor white people since they need help now that their ancestors are hated and they (the descendants who arent in the 1%) are now targeted for death. Case in point, Blomkampf’s South Africa where there are many many whites living in poverty. Another is 60k diaspora of Zimbabwe and the remaining 30k too poor to escape Robert “Black Hitler” Mugabe. Yet another is the unfortunate situation of the Whites in Eurabia (Europe for you not informed about the 3rd Islamic Jihad Campaign in Europe).

  9. I had this perfect comment to share, but just thought there was no point on posting it! All people should just think before posting shit.. I mean really THINK!!! Take every little concideration into thought and you will find that most people don’t think to open there eyes and see futher than there eyelids and only to stare at a big wall. Must say there is a lot of good choice of opinions and would want to like a few comments.

    Just something.. “Boytjies” is NOT a racial term!! It was and still is mostly used to describe your fellow team mates in sport in SA

  10. I also expected Max to be non-white, maybe Spanish. Since I am Afrikaans myself, I found Kruger to be hilarious with all the cliche things he does with his team, especially when he sang the lullaby. Another point I would like to make is that even though this movie didn’t feature a lot of ogre, when it did it didn’t hold back.

  11. Your comments on the hero being white are interesting. After watching it, I though that even though Matt Damon was the headline act, I felt the hero was actually Spider. He was the one who genuinely wanted to help people (Max just wanted to save himself, and maybe his true love’s daughter). Max wouldn’t have even thought of going to Elysium without Spider. And he wouldn’t have been able to hack the program without Spider.

  12. Interesting post. I’m actually halfway through viewing ‘Elysium’. Max the white hero struck me so much that I halted the DVD to look online to see what other people had to say about this.

    This crap has been going on forever – from the typical cowboy film hero (when most cowboys were in fact Latino or Black), to ‘Tears of the Sun’, ‘The Last Samurai’ and ‘Avatar’ and many, many more. I’m not religious, but it appears to be true that the oppressed are not even allowed to be their own heroes -” For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath”. (Mark 4:25).

    I liked ‘District 9’ also, but in that film Blomkamp didn’t do much better on bucking the racial stereotypes. The setting is mostly in townships, yet only the white characters are not villains or gormless. Someone should also have told the casting director that South Africans are a completely different physical type from any Nigerians, who originate across the other side of a huge continent. Oh well, I suppose he did better than ‘Cry Freedom’. Anyone remember that?

    I don’t expect non-white actors to ever be more than ‘colourful’ background to white saviour-heroes until the day Black African and Latin American directors begin to make action films that are distributed worldwide. The number of Hollywood films that have used Kenya/China/Egypt etc purely as an exciting setting (with local people as hapless types to be taught/fought/rescued/civilised or ignored) is ridiculous.

  13. Julio in the movie form the rebels (stands for the occupy movement) is also white. So do not bullshit everything with your type of thinking!!!

  14. I think that Max being white IS the whole point ELYSIUM is aiming at. Not that the white male will always be the hero, but that in the ELYSIUM dystopian reality, inequality and poverty have gotten so far that eventually everyone is bound by the same misfortune. Even the white factory manager IS being discriminated and looked down by the rich elysian owner Carlyle. Poverty and desperation prey on everyone, and white audiences are distraught when poor whites are ruthlessly being deported from ELYSIUM too, when not so long ago, they may have been the opressors as well. Fate, if not corrected is simple: The whole planet rendered toxic by pollutants that rid everyone with disease and starvation. Clear warnings that in the end, we’re all just the same fragile human beings, sharing the same finite, limited resources…

  15. In the ELYSIUM reality, it is MONEY the sole criteria that separates people. President Patel appears to be pakistani or hindustan; Secretary Delacourt must be definitely of french ancestry, and we can’t just label the french “white” as a whole (there are bretons, gascoignes, etc.) Cues from the cinematography depicts Max’s environment as the blurred mexican-U.S. border of the future; being Max himself a remnant of what once was the white population. But he’s not enslaved due to his race either, but only because he’s destitute like millions more. Today’s third world has moved well above the equator in the ELYSIUM era due to capitalism evils unleashed. Looking closely in the deportation scenes, whites also can be seen being brutalized; elysians just don’t consider earth humans as people, regardless of their race; they’re just barbarian trespassers. MONEY is the ultimate divide. The story is so compelling that any top leading man of any ethnicity could have easily been cast as Max (Vin Diesel, Common, Colin Farrell, Leo DiCaprio, even Ricky Martin…) and still the audience could relate with all the characters predicaments and motivations. Above all, its entertainment delivered through a successful vehicle: the usual sci-fi action-packed flick. With an intelligent social commentary, by proposing to the audience: “Fall, 2145. What you see it’s not Rwanda. It’s actually California”

  16. Actually Max fits in perfectly in what is to be the projected population of Los Angeles in the future. LA is quickly becoming a mix of latino/white/asian blend that is almost indistinguishable from one another. His shaved head and tattoos are supposed to represent some sort of amalgamation of some future “Cholo” sort of Southern Cal culture. Not so far fetched in my opinion.

  17. You folks who keep asking why is Max white, why is Max white, are seriously out of touch. $130,000,000 isn’t spent because Max is a white protagonist, it is spent because the guy playing Max is Matt Damon, who has total star power and will put many people in the theater solely because they love Matt Damon. That’s the only reason I bothered to watch this movie, which was entertaining but so heavy-handed in its assignment of villainry as to be laughable.

  18. Yes, you are 100% correct. Racism is alive and kicking in South Africa, we have a racist government which implements laws like affirmative action (the only country in the world where it favours the majority).

    O ja, one last correction. Boykie is used among us “whites” when you talk to a good friend, team mate etc. Direct translation is small boy. You refer to the word “Booi”, I think you should brush up on your knowledge, boy!

  19. I think if it were any other movie but in this particular movie. It helps that it’s a white guy. Racists and those embedded in a racist culture unfortunately only listen to their own types. In order to make it clear, that is the overall message of the film, we /have/ to put the white guy in ‘our’ place. Racism is after all a silly dangerous system implemented to encourage average whites to seek to subdue or undermine their coloured brother. Once that’s in the average white persons head and they themselves begin to dismantle the system supposedly put in place for their betterment, our world with all its movements and struggles may begin to go somewhere like forward. My two cents.

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